One week after the Armistice ended World War I in 1918, a committee in Merion voted to consider a “Peace Memorial Community House.” By the following April subscriptions were coming in slowly. Civic Association board members were urged to underwrite the fund, and five dances at the Overbrook Golf Club were planned to raise money. Suddenly two “angels” materialized in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge Reeves Johnson, residents of Merion, made rich by his very popular Victrola and wax records to play on it, products of the Victor Talking Machine Company (later sold to RCA). America and the world danced to Victrola’s music. The Johnsons offered to give their house, carriage house, and $250,000 to cover design and construction of a new building and to double the $70,000 already collected as an endowment. It was estimated that maintenance of the Tribute House would cost $7,089 per year, and income from the fund would be $7,150. The Johnsons’ gifts were accepted with gratitude, and the deed of trust was handed to the newly organized Merion Community Association as trustees, in May 1922. The Johnsons thereafter moved to New Jersey to be nearer his Victrola plant.
Local architects Livingston Smith and Walter Karcher, who lost a son in the war, went to work and developed a set of plans. Edward Bok, president of the Civic Association, with only a tinge of jealousy perhaps, declared the drawings “so ornate, so palatial…I cannot endorse or recommend them,” which delayed matters. But Johnson’s son, Fenimore, insisted on this “most beautiful structure of its kind” and ended the argument.
The old Johnson house, The Chimneys, was demolished. The driveway of the original house was partially preserved, a massive granite front step became the lintel over the door from the porte-cochere in the new building, and the limestone balustrade of the Johnson home was transferred to the new flagstone terrace. Stone for the building was shaped on site, unusual in modern times and mullions and jambs were cut by hand. The tower is embellished by three lifesize figures in high relief: a soldier, a sailor and a marine in battle dress. Below, in the main hall, memorial plaques list men of Merion who served in both wars.
On May 12, 1924, the Tribute House was dedicated. The building was conceived as a gathering place for the residential community around it, with a tearoom and a small kitchen, meeting rooms, ballroom/movie theater/concert hall with organ, and outside, a playground. A director originally lived in the bungalow built behind the parking area, now rented, and Scouts still use the old carriage house.
Today the tearoom, organ and movie projectors are gone, while weddings, corporate gatherings, bar mitzvahs, and occasions of all sorts are celebrated by renters from miles around and community service meetings are frequent. Air conditioning makes for pleasant summer use and two fireplaces lend atmosphere in winter. The Merion Tribute House hosts more than two hundred events each year.
—Written by Mary M. Wood; Research: Cynthia DeStephano, Berty Cannon